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Russia: EU Officials Say Moscow 'Not Living Up To' International Obligations In Chechnya

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The European Commission yesterday approved another 16.5 million euros in humanitarian aid to support victims of the ongoing war in Chechnya. A Commission background document notes the new allocation brings the total since the beginning of the conflict in late 1999 to above 100 million euros -- but with very little effect. The humanitarian situation in and around Chechnya continues to deteriorate and EU officials say Russia is failing in several respects to "live up" to its obligations under international law.

Brussels, 18 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Chechnya is a classic case of "throwing money at a problem" -- which observers say is often the European Union's approach to problems it does not want to get too involved in.

In three-and-a-half years, the EU has earmarked 110 million euros for Chechnya. The money has made little difference beyond providing the local population and the tens of thousands of refugees in and around Chechnya with the barest necessities. And even that has not been easy.

For the EU to help victims of the Chechen conflict, Moscow must cooperate by providing security for aid workers and facilitating their access to people in need. But Moscow has largely failed on this account.

Arguably, EU member states could bring pressure to bear on Russia's leadership, but not all member states see eye-to-eye on this issue. This means that the European Commission is reduced to providing funding for whichever aid organizations are willing to work in Chechnya under the present hazardous conditions.

Yesterday's allocation was accompanied by another frustrated statement from the EU's humanitarian affairs commissioner, Poul Nielson. As he has in the past, Nielson called on Russian authorities to "take seriously the obligations to secure access for aid workers to the victims of the crisis."

Nielson's spokesman, Jean-Charles Ellermann-Kingombe, told RFE/RL that the plight of Chechen refugees outside of the country is also becoming a serious concern: "One important problem is that there are about 100,000 internally displaced persons in neighboring republics, for instance Ingushetia. What we've seen over the last year as well is that their situation is worsening and that local authorities are continuing to prevent us from building new shelters to them and move them into new shelters. So, we actually think that compared to one year ago, the situation is still worsening."

Ellerman-Kingombe said federal and Ingush authorities were putting pressure on refugees to leave camps. Although the brutal camp closures of last year have ceased, pressure is now taking subtler forms, such as de-registration of existing refugees and denying registration to new arrivals.

Ellerman-Kingombe said Russian officials prevent EU-funded aid agencies from providing or improving shelter for the refugees, with the apparent aim of forcing refugees to move back to Chechnya. This, he says violates one of the "most basic" international rules pertaining to refugees -- that they themselves must be able to decide voluntarily when to leave.

A parallel problem, often highlighted by European Commission officials over the past years, is the obstacles the federal authorities put in the path of aid workers in Chechnya. "It is not our impression that the working conditions for humanitarian aid workers have improved from one year ago," Ellermann-Kingombe said.

Privately, officials have been saying that the conditions for access are now "very bad and worsening." Travel permits are hard to obtain, while certain essential radio frequencies are still blocked and security provisions for aid workers remain inadequate at best.

Meanwhile, a European Commission background document accompanying its most recent humanitarian aid decision paints a very bleak picture of the situation on the ground.

"Three-and-a-half years into the conflict," the document notes, "the humanitarian situation of the Chechen population [has] not improved at all." It goes on to say that the needs of an "increasingly exhausted population are barely covered by the assistance of the international community."

The document estimates there are more than 100,000 Chechen refugees outside the country now -- 92,000 in Ingushetia, 5-10,000 in Dagestan, and others elsewhere. 150,000 people remain displaced within Chechnya itself.

The EU document says "insecurity prevails" in Chechnya despite a two-week lull after the constitutional referendum on 23 March. Rebel attacks on federal forces continue, as do "severe and widespread" human rights violations, committed by Russia's armed forces and pro-Russian police units; among them abductions, torture, and assassinations of civilians. The document says many of the atrocities are substantiated by the pro-Russian Chechen administration itself.

The conflict has disrupted virtually every aspect of the local economy. Some schools have resumed work, but social and health care services are "hardly functioning."

Sixty percent of all Chechen families are "economically vulnerable." A great need remains for food assistance, while non-food items such as household and hygiene products and clothes are also "very poorly covered." Medical assistance is assessed as being "extremely basic." Water and sanitation have seen "absolutely no improvement" beyond efforts made by the international community.

The document notes a federal compensation scheme announced for families who have lost their homes, entitling potentially 280,000 people to financial support in 2003-4. But, the document goes on to say, "whether federal funds allocated for this purpose will ever reach their intended beneficiaries remains unknown." It says most of last year's reconstruction budget for Chechnya was "embezzled" and adds that the level of corruption "is such that there is a doubt as to families will ever receive all that they are entitled to."

The document concludes that promises of compensation, as well as subtle and not-so-subtle pressure may force Chechen refugees outside the country to return, but that in the longer term, "everything will depend on the security situation." It adds: "If the situation does improve, families will probably stay. If not, they will most probably return to Ingushetia."

Earlier this year one EU official told RFE/RL privately that it could take "decades" before Russia manages to regain sufficient control over its army to restore law and order in Chechnya.